Test Ride: Kawasaki W650

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Words: Rob Harris Photos: As specified

Back when Kawasaki were in their infancy and the British big twins had the world market by the gonads, Kawi decided it was time to get serious about motorcycles and build a big air cooled twin of its own. Following the age old rule of why develop when you can simply copy, the W1 was born. Based on the BSA A10, it sold well in the home market but not in North America. Kawasaki quickly ceased production of the big twin, that is until a decade later when the twin cam Z750 was introduced. However, Lady Fortune was not rubbing up against Kawasaki, and the KZ750 was quickly condemned as one of the most character less and boring bikes ever made.

That brings us to the present, 20 years since the Z750 and 30 since the W1, where we find that the big K has decided to re-explore this concept with the W650

The new Kawasaki W650

Imported into Europe for ’99, it seems very likely that the U.S. will take the W650 onto their 2000 model line. What that means is that Kawasaki Canada may opt to grab some of the U.S. shipment and offer a limit run of them to the Canadian consumer. As a prior test of public reaction, they grabbed one and brought it over for journalistic testing, and that’s where I come in.

With my own personal fondness of big parallel twins, I’d kept my eye on the W650 as it hit the pages of the euro mags, and when the chance came to have a go myself, I jumped .. well rode, and picked it up.

Initial viewing reveals close attention to all things retroness. Spoked wheels (19″ front and 18″ rear) with narrow tires, air cooled parallel twin motor, drum rear brake and even fork gaiters, speak of 40 years gone by. The styling is uncannily 60’s, yet with a modern attention to detail and the desirable injection of 90’s technology.

Top: Spark plug location
Left: Bevel drive
Right: Kick starter

The motor is the traditional 676cc parallel twin that proved so popular in the sixties, with electric boot and … wait … a kick starter! Even the crank layout is of the 360 degree format (pistons up and down together), with a long 83 mm stroked crank, heavy flywheel and a single camshaft (thankfully overhead though). Where things get a little odd are in the cam drive department. Pushrods? Camchain? No, how about a shaft. I’m not critisising, it’s a well engineered (if rather expensive) way of transmitting the drive. Oh, but that external cam drive does means that the spark plugs are missing. Well, just not where you’d expect them because the shaft gets in the way. They’re actually up front, right on the top of the engine. Max claimed horsepower is around 50, with max torque coming in at a tad over 40 ft.lb at 5500 rpm.

As a happy owner of a 1976 Yamaha XS650, I thought it would be interesting to grab a days ride with both bikes – new verses old kinda thing. So it was that CMG photographer, Wilfred Gaube, and myself headed north for the day to explore Southern Ontario on the two thumpers.

Initially, the W650 didn’t quite fit my 6’4″ carcass, even though the seat is a tall 800 mm. The thick rubber knee pads on the tank didn’t pad my knees, but rubbed against my legs. The bars seem to be lifted directly off an over emphasised cruiser – leaving the rider upright with arms splayed to the wind, and the seat just felt, ‘ard! But then I started to adapt. With pegs directly under the rider, it’s easy to shuffle your upper body about to maintain comfort. Higher speeds still suffered due to the bars, but a set of flatter, narrower bars would seem like a relatively simple mod to get you leaning slightly forward and into the wind. Failing that, switching to the rear pegs has a similar effect and is recommended once speeds get above the 120 km/h mark.

This would seem like a good time to talk about vibes. Any twin that throws two chunky pistons up and down together is asking for vibes. My old XS countered this by rubber mounting everything EXCEPT the engine. Kawi take a bit more of a sensible approach by installing a single balancer shaft along with copious rubber mounting between said motor and chassis. Some vibes are still there, which adds to the charm, but thankfully no where near as charming as the XS, which at higher revs charms the fillings from your teeth and all feeling from your extremities. Having said that, a few vibes do persist with the Kawi, which some might find a bit intrusive on the highway.

Kawi have further kept the soul of a big parallel twin by ensuring a large gob of torque delivery at low and mid rpms. Quick take off at the lights guarantees to see you at the front of the traffic pack without need for high rpm clutch slipping. Combine this with a very agile and balanced feeling chassis, and the W650 provides for easy weaving and quick get aways, should the cagers decide to clog up your throughway. Unfortunately, those ‘pea-shooter’ pipes are just too damned quiet. The beast needs to express itself and so a set of ‘off road’ pipes would be worthwhile or even just give the standard items a quick poking with a long steel spike – not that I’m recommending that of course.

On the Highway, the motor copes very well, eventually running out of steam around the 180 Km/h mark, although interestingly you could probably find a few extra Km/h’s if you dropped it down one from top. Talking of which, the box never missed a shift and was smooth and positive. Even the clutch action was pleasingly light. FYI, at 180 in top the tach is touching 6,100 rpm – for the more cautious amoung you, that translates to about 3,400 rpm at 100 Km/h.

The chassis is also faithful to the era, made up of a duplex cradle steel frame, sprung at the rear by twin shrouded shocks (preload only) and non adjustable telescopic jobbies up front. The resulting handling is not too bad, although there’s a certain amount of vagueness there, especially at high speed due to the overall softness of the suspension. However, if you give it some faith into the corners it holds its line well.

Stoppers have thankfully opted for some 90’s tech – at the all important front anyway. The twin sliding caliper grips onto a 300 mm semi floating disc and never left me wanting. Of course it never left me in a stoppie either, which is good because those 39 mm front forks would likely just bend under the strain. The rear keeps retro and uses the old drum type. Which isn’t that bad of an idea because too much rear power only results in easy rear wheel lock ups anyway. Ah, it does the job.

W650 likes ditches and all things odd

At one point of our ride, I thought it would work well if we got a couple of shots of the W650 doing a bit of dirt spitting, back wheel spinning, flat track style maneuvers. The low down torque just encourages this kind of behavior whenever starting up on the dirt shoulder after a quick map check. A few miles down the road we came to the required patch o’ dirt and duly snapped away. It was then that I realised that the W650 could not only kick around very happily in the dirt, but also go in and out of ditches with remarkable ease. The bars weren’t quite right for prolonged standing, but the motor and good ground clearance open up all kind of minor off road excursions. Later, we further explored this possibility by taking some of the more challenging dirt roads, all of which the W650 took in it’s stride. Could we possibly see a scrambler version with high upswept exhaust, longer suspenders and some semi-knobbies? Probably not, but trust me, it would work.

So with all that said, what category does this motorcycle fit into and who would buy it? Somehow, I keep erring more towards the cruiser market than the sports. Maybe it’s the wide bars and relative disregard for technology. But then it also encourages the more reckless element of the soul. You don’t necessarily just want to sit back and enjoy the ride, you want to push the ride a little, without going all the way and actually getting your knee down.

New (left) and old (right). The W650 and XS650 sow the similar styling cues.

I think there’s two groups that it would appeal to. The more obvious is the 40-plus rider, who harks back fondly to the originals, yet could do without the grief. And then the rider like me. Turned off by the impractability of both the podgy cruiser or fanatic sport bike and yearning for something simple, economic (21 km/l), easy to maintain and yet capable of doing most things that make riding fun. In Japan, where the W650 is also available, there’s now a big aftermaket market choice of bolt-ons. It’s basic design allows the owner ample room to modify to their likings. I like that.

 

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